Slippery Slopes and Fixed Ropes


I have a three hour layover in the San Francisco airport. So…

Slippery Slopes and Fixed Ropes
Brian Zahnd

The “slippery slope” trope is a favorite among fundamentalists. Basically the argument goes like this: The moment you move away from fundamentalist Biblicism you’re on the slippery slope of liberalism and will wind up sliding down into a crevasse with the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher and John Shelby Spong. According to those who believe that serious theology is a slippery slope, you’re either with fundamentalists and young earth creationists like Ken Ham or you’re sliding down the mountain with new atheists like Christopher Hitchens. Of course, this is a ludicrous false dichotomy. But it carries a ton of intimidation. Just about the worst thing you can call an evangelical pastor is a liberal. The only thing worse is to go Def-Con 4 and drop the H-bomb: Heretic!

So instead of climbing the holy mountain of theology (study of God) seeking to encounter the Divine as revealed in Christ, many evangelicals feel forced to stay in the flatlands of fundamentalist Biblicism with its flat reading of Scripture. The “flatlanders” idea is that if we will simply read the Bible “as it is” we will be safe from all error. The problem is that the flatlanders tend to end up endorsing unsustainable theories like a literal six day (144 hour) creation and that the earth is only 6,000 years old. They also feel forced to defend morally repugnant ideas from a primitive era, like a God who commands genocide, including the slaughter of children. A flat reading of the Bible fails to notice the back and forth nature of Scripture as the Old Testament maintains a strident debate on important matters. For example: Does God require blood sacrifice? The Torah says, yes, but the Psalms and Prophets challenge this. Should Gentiles be allowed to worship in the second Temple? Isaiah says, yes, but Nehemiah says no.

A flat reading of the Bible does not give us the full revelation of God. The full revelation of God is found only in Jesus. Jesus alone is the perfect icon of God’s image and the exact imprint of God’s nature (Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3). What the Bible does infallibly is point us to Jesus! Jesus is the only perfect theology. But the exploration of God as revealed in Christ — which is what we mean by Christian theology — is an ongoing venture, not unlike climbing a great mountain. So instead of sitting in the flatlands pretending that a flat reading of our sacred text will reveal the full glory of God, we need to grab our ice axes, strap on our crampons and climb the mountain of God!

From my own experience I know that climbing mountains is rewarding, difficult, and dangerous. So let me push the theology-as-mountaineering metaphor a little farther. Are there dangers in climbing the mountain of God? Yes. People have fallen into crevasses of error. But it doesn’t have to happen. There are safety precautions. We are not the first to ascend the slopes of the Divine Mountain. Great spiritual mountaineers have gone before us — climbers like Origen and Cassian, Irenaeus and Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor. Not only have they gone before us, but they have established the fixed ropes that later theological climbers can clip into. It’s the fixed ropes that enable us to climb the steep slopes of God without falling into the crevasses of error.

(Longs Peak in Colorado has seen something like seventy fatalities. But there has never been a fatal fall of a roped climber. It tends to be the inexperienced day hikers who get into trouble. Do you see my point?)

These fixed ropes I’m talking about are the great historic Creeds of the church — especially the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. Having confessed — “clipped into” — the Creeds we are free to explore the mountain of God without undo anxiety of sliding down the mountain as a doomed heretic. This is what the Creeds are for. They keep us safe while doing theology. We’re not worried about the slippery slopes because we have the fixed ropes.

Occasionally I meet with someone who suspects I may be a heretic because I don’t share their precise views on eschatology or atonement theories or afterlife speculations or some other area of theology. The moment they raise the subject of heresy, I always respond the same way. I say this:

“I need you to look me in the eye and listen very closely, because what I’m about to say is extremely important. I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…” And I recite for them — very slowly — the entire Apostles’ Creed. When I finish the Creed I says this: “Throughout the history of the church this Creed, along with the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds, have defined what it means to believe as an orthodox Christian. I confess these Creeds. Therefore I am orthodox in my Christian faith. Beyond the Creeds we may have disagreements about how we interpret the book of Revelation, how old the earth is, and how many people will be in hell, but these disagreements do not amount to heresy.” And then, with a wry smile I add, “Just because you don’t agree with me doesn’t mean you are a heretic. So if you would like to have a theological conversation, I would love to do that. But we will not be dropping H-bombs on each other.”

I’m simply not a fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is a wrongheaded and anti-intellectual reaction to the Enlightenment trying to make Holy Scripture a kind of scientific text to rebut modernity. Neither am I a Biblicist. Biblicism is a flat reading of Scripture that makes the Bible itself an idolatrous object of faith, rather than what it is: the word of God as an inspired sign pointing us to the true Word of God who is Jesus Christ. And I’m certainly not a liberal. Insisting on the primacy of the Church Fathers, the Great Tradition, and the historic Creeds as our guide to interpreting Scripture is perhaps the very essence of what it means to be a truly conservative Christian! I confess what the church has taught me to confess about Christ and the Christian faith. I have clipped into the fixed ropes of Christian orthodoxy and I’m committed to exploring the mountain of Christian theology. I’m not afraid of slippery slopes. I will not be cowed into dwelling in the flatlands because some have neither the curiosity nor the courage to climb the mountain of God. I have my theological ice axe and crampons. I’ve clipped into the fixed ropes of the Creeds. And I intend to scale the slippery slopes to gain a glimpse of the God revealed in Christ.